Britain’s call to war

Thomas Hopkins April 19 1982

Britain’s call to war

Thomas Hopkins April 19 1982

Britain’s call to war


Thomas Hopkins

It was a week awash in memory and anachronism. In Britain, handkerchiefs fluttered and men huzzahed as a mighty royal armada set sail from Portsmouth. Its mission was to defend a tiny splinter of Empire that few of the well-wishers on the salt-splashed pier had heard of before last week. In Buenos Aires, blueand-white Argentine flags snapped in the fall air and a delirious crowd of 50,000 people cheered President Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri who stood beckoning on the same balcony of the Casa Rosada used by Argentina’s greatest nationalist heroine, Evita Perón. Forgetting for a moment their ruined economy, the portenos of Buenos Aires roared their approval of the invasion of the Malvinas. The forlorn group of islands, 480 km off the South American coast, make up an area that generations of Argentine children have learned was pirated by the English 149 years ago and dubbed the Falkland Islands. But the week the

But as the week wore on, the tin-pot jingoism on both sides of the Atlantic faded. Cooler heads began to prevail as the 29-ship British fleet plowed resolutely toward the Equator and the likelihood of a shooting war nobody wanted became ever more certain. Military experts speculated that a British-Argen-

tine clash on or around the Falklands would be sufficiently bloody to unseat both governments. Then, the British declared a 200-nautical-mile free-fire zone around the wind-torn islands effective Easter Monday and diplomatic efforts took on a new urgency.

The Reagan administration, irritated at being placed in the middle between two allies, dispatched Secretary of State Alexander Haig into an exhausting round of shuttle diplomacy be-

tween the two capitals. And the rest of the world, which had first viewed the war’s elements of Latin machismo and Gilbert and Sullivan chivalry with amusement, warily held its breath.

The rapidly awakening realism was nowhere more evident than in Buenos Aires. Maclean’s New York bureau chief Jane O’Hara reported: “The Argentine newspapers have dubbed the British armada the flota pirata—pirate fleet— but as the British intention to fight became clearer, nationalists here who had praised Galtieri’s bold move became more anxious about the next step. The five television channels are inundated with government ads selling the invasion and whipping up war sentiment. One shows young Argentine troops in full battle dress yelling, 'Si juro, si juro, si juro’ [T swear’]. It is the oath all young men take to defend their country. One Argentine businessman told me the ad would be particularly effective with older people who would remember the glorious days of their youth, much like Second World War British soldiers listening to The White Cliffs of Dover.”

In Britain the three-hour invasion of the Falklands, following a minor diplomatic flap on nearby South Georgia Island, was still being viewed as a national humiliation. It was clearly the most severe test ever of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government, and, if the Falklands are not recovered, it

may well mean the end of her regime. Early in the week Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington and two junior ministers were forced to step down, and throughout the remainder Thatcher fended off calls for her own resignation. Particularly contentious were British press reports that U.S. spy satellite and diplomatic information had tipped the Foreign Office to the invasion 11 days before it occurred. Thatcher denied the

charges, saying the government had been warned only two days prior to the predawn Argentine strike.

There was far less dispute over Thatcher’s resolve to send the fleet to the rescue of the Falklands’ 1,800 British citizens. All four British parties supported the move. But some MPs, notably Labour’s Tony Benn, charged that the battle fleet is merely a silly echo of the cummerbunds and cocked hats of Empire. Still, supporters

of firm action, such as

Social Democrat MP and former Labour foreign secretary David Owen, invoked the example of Afghanistan and argued that the precedent of a successful Argentine invasion of the Falklands would endanger such disputed British protectorates as Gibraltar, Hong Kong and eight other frail overseas dependencies.

Even if the British fleet never engages the Argentines, it is a formidable

propaganda tool—a sea-grey demonstration that Britain has the backbone to protect the British islanders. The force consists of two anti-submarine aircraft carriers, the Invincible and Hermes, the assault ship HMS Fearless and assorted missile-carrying frigates and destroyers. Also commandeered were several fuel tankers and one cruise ship, the world’s third largest, the 49,500-tonne Canberra, to be used as a

troop carrier and hospital ship.

On the economic front, Thatcher froze Argentine assets in Britain and banned some $326 million worth of imported goods. The major grocery chain Tesco quickly moved to strip its shelves of Argentine beef. In Europe, solidarity with Britain led West Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands to suspend all arms shipments to the Gal-

tieri regime. Canada responded by! withdrawing its ambassador for consul-> tâtions and cancelling all arms ship-ments. But it fell short of following New! Zealand’s example of breaking diplo-S: matic relations in the hopes of participating in a negotiated settlement.

So far, Britain and Argentina have kept nastiness toward each other to a minimum. The British shut down their embassy in Buenos Aires, and both

British Airways and Aerolineas Argentinas discontinued service. An Argentine soccer player with the Tottenham Hotspurs in London was booed every time he touched the ball and quickly decided to go back to Buenos Aires. For their part, the Argentines have stopped ^distribution of the En^glish-language daily Buenos Aires Herald. oWhen a BBC crew arrived at the airport, it was allowed to enter but its equipment was im-

pounded. (Interestingly,

the CBC was not permitted to relay its news reports by satellite, presumably in retaliation for the recalling of the Canadian ambassador.)

Perhaps the group watching the current flare-up with the most dismay are the 17,000 Argentine residents holding British passports (out of approximately 350,000 Argentines of British descent). Imperial Britain is much in evidence in

Argentina (see story, page 33). Argentine train stations, built along with the railroads by British engineers, are exact replicas of those that dot the English countryside. There is a Harrods department store in Buenos Aires, a Claridge’s Hotel and a Queen Bess Tea Parlour. British interests hold an estimated $5.8 billion in assets in Argentina (now all frozen), far more than the $1.5 billion Argentines hold in Britain.

But despite the fact that it will be far more costly for Britain to fight a war in the South Atlantic than for Argentina, it is apparent that the Argentines underestimated the bellicose British reaction to the seizure of the Falklands. And it is still far from clear why Argentina undertook the provocative step in the first place. The possibility of oil in Falkland offshore waters is cited as a motive, but experts cannot agree on the

potential. More likely the invasion was a means of raising the profile of President Galtieri, installed in December after hard-line azul (blue) factions in the army sacked ailing former president Roberto Eduardo Viola. Although Argentina has had no free elections since the army threw out Isabel Perón in 1976, Galtieri in recent months has been conspicuous at elaborately staged public appearances, feeding speculation that he is preparing for eventual elections as the government’s “official” candidate in 1984. The retaking of the Malvinas would be a powerful launching pad.

But the most likely explanation for the invasion is that the Falklands adventure was a well-timed and popular diversion away from an economy that is reeling out of control. Since the 1976 ascension of the junta militar, repression of civil rights in the successful war against units of the left-wing Montoneros and economic malaise have gone

hand in hand. Although civil rights violations and the number of “disappeared” (estimated at 6,000 by Amnesty International) has declined, the economic graphs continue to tilt disastrously downward. A dollar worth 2,000 pesos in 1981, is now worth 14,700 pesos. It costs 300,000 pesos for a cab ride from the airport to downtown Buenos Aires and more than one million pesos for a hotel room.

Argentina should be the economic power of South America; instead, it is on its knees. The cost of living rose 5.3 per cent in February, representing a 12month inflation rate of 149.4 per cent. In the past few weeks of the Argentine summer, almost unheard-of anti-government demonstrations by descamisados— literally shirtless-ones— have dotted the countryside. At the end of March, a demonstration in Buenos Ai-

res’ Mayo Square by members of the five-party opposition alliance Multipartidaria resulted in beatings by police and 400 arrests. Since the invasion, however, the opposition has been stilled and Argentines, temporarily at least, have been bound in nationalism. This defiant mood was repeated by Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez, who said last week, “What has just been reborn on our continent, with all its classic crudeness, and in its most classic form, is the old colonial theme we all believed had been overcome.”

Certainly, the current Falklands crisis is hung with the trappings of Empire. The Falklands were taken in by the British sloop HMS Clio in 1833, when the ship’s crew ousted the Argentine governor and garrison. The Argentines claim that they inherited the islands from the Spanish when Argentina was granted independence in 1816. Their ownership has been in dispute ever since. Even today, the islands are dominated by the

Falkland Island Trading Co., a direct descendant of the great engines of English imperialism, such trading companies as the East India Co. and the Hudson’s Bay Co.

The islanders themselves, faced with the prospect of rule by an Argentine junta with a lamentable human rights record, remained unrepentantly British. It was a sentiment voiced by cocky Falklands Governor Rex Masterman Hunt when he broadcast to his fellow islanders as bullets splattered into Government House, “I’m not surrendering to the bloody Argies!” Not surprisingly, when the British government proposed in 1980 that Argentina gain sovereignty over the Falklands on the condition that Britain retain administrative control for at least 25 years, the scheme was scuttled when the islanders rejected it.

If Britain is a reluctant savior, its

reluctance is deepened in the current crisis because it is not certain of a clear military victory. Although its fleet is superior to Argentina’s in number, equipment and experience (see chart, page 36), it will be severely hampered by the logistical nightmare of a 12,800-km supply line and uncertain air superiority. The 20 British carrier-based Harrier jets are faster than the Argentine A-4 Skyhawks that will oppose them. But the Harriers have only a 160-km range compared to the Skyhawks’ 1,100 km.

§ The Falklands battle area is also within range of another 200 land-

based Argentine combat aircraft. And military experts question whether the British in fact have the ability to take and hold the islands. An extended Falklands blockade would necessarily include Britain’s own 1,800 citizens. And an Argentine coastal blockade would likely demand too many resources to be effective. Not only that, an embargo could draw in the Soviets, Argentina’s largest buyer of grain.

A nuclear threat is considered remote but not unthinkable. Although the British have a full nuclear capability, the Argentines have none, despite a recent report in the New Scientist magazine that Argentina will have a bomb by 1982. Nonetheless, Admiral Carlos Castro Madero, head of the Argentine nuclear energy commission, recently repeated that his government reserves the right to detonate “a peaceful atomic device.” And the Soviets have announced that they will supply 100 kg of enriched uranium to help with the nu-

clear program. Weapons-grade plutonium can theoretically be manufactured from South America’s only commercial nuclear generating station, the Argentine Atucha plant. A Canadianbuilt Candu reactor will be completed in August, 1983, at Embalse-Rio Tercero.

The prospect of a bloody clash between allies is a nightmarish thought for Washington. Galtieri was gambling that the United States would not actively oppose his move. Argentina has been a staunch Washington ally in dealing with El Salvador and a hardline supporter of America’s anti-Cuba initiatives. Although the Thatcher government is a philosophical soul mate of the Reagan administration, the Western Hemisphere is a U.S. sphere of influence, and Reagan is loath to see a British task force attack there. America wants to develop strategic bases in Patagonia, communication centres in Argentina proper and drum up potential business for American oil-drilling companies. All will be aided by a solution to the bothersome 149-year-old problem.

Galtieri’s gamble has apparently paid off. Despite the British insistence that no negotiations are possible until Argentina has left the Falklands, both sides breathed a palpable sigh of relief when Haig set off to play the role of “honest broker.” But to keep the pressure on, Argentina’s representative last

week told a packed, specially called meeting of the 28-member Organization of American States that it was considering invoking the 1947 Rio Defence Pact if Britain attacks. The agreement states that if a member is attacked, all other nations in the Americas—except Canada—will come to its aid, including the United States. And that is a mea-

sure that Washington wants to avoid at all costs.

Meeting with both Argentine Foreign Minister Costa Mendez and British Ambassador Sir Nicholas Henderson in Washington last week, Haig is understood to have outlined a possible longterm diplomatic solution revolving around the so-called “Hong Kong” option rejected by the Falkland Islanders in 1980. According to the Haig scheme, Britain would immediately recognize Argentine sovereignty in the Falklands. Argentine forces would then withdraw

and the islands would be leased back to the British for at least 25 years. A possible variation would see the establishment of an interim international peacekeeping force on the islands.

As he crisscrossed the Atlantic at week’s end, spending Easter weekend in Buenos Aires, Haig was left with an enormous and delicate task. For the first time in recent memory, a secretary of state did not take reporters along on what was an overtly diplomatic mission. The reason behind the move is that Haig and his advisers are going to great lengths to appear neutral. It was feared that reporters on the plane might pick up an unguarded remark that could offend one ally or another. And the fact was that, despite all of the diplomatic talk of global sanity and honorable solutions, Haig must finally persuade one side to back down and take the first step toward avoiding a fight—before the British blockade deadline. Washington believes that Britain could take that step simply by announcing that it recognized Argentine sovereignty.

And as for the staunchly British islanders, advisers to Haig point out that they may see the situation very differently now that their homeland has been invaded. They may be ready to accept anything that will prevent them being in the eye of a war. The American analysis would seem to be borne out by

The most likely reason for the invasion was to divert attention from civil strife and an economy out of control

reactions of the islanders last week. Formerly bellicose, they were visibly shaken by the speed of the invasion and openly fearful of a British invasion. As Argentine tanks clanked through the streets of Port Stanley, the islanders took advantage of the lifting of restrictions on movement last week to take their children to outlying areas away from potential hot spots. And 10 Canadians living on the islands sent a telegram to Prime Minister Trudeau asking him to help keep the situation “calm.” The Canadian external affairs department has asked the Argentine government for help in getting the Canadians—two families and two single men—out of the Falklands safely. Ironically, one family from British Columbia, Jim and Barbara Curtis and their two children, fled Canada for the Falklands fearing that their home country would be too vulnerable in the event of a Third World War.


At week’s end the outcome of the crisis still remained uncertain. As Haig frantically tried to piece together a deal before the guns started, cracks began to show in the Argentine resolve. Eduardo Cabrose, a 24-year-old porteño who believes he was forced to sell his family uniform-making business due to gov-

ernment mismanagement of the economy, was typical of many Argentines. “Let us not be fooled into thinking that people here do not see the real reason behind [the invasion],” he told Maclean's. “Even the most jingoistic admit the politics behind it. The Malvinas mean nothing to me and I am not worried about the

British—they will not fire a shot.”

Still, in the southern port of Comodoro Rivadavia the work of war went on. Light planes circled over the darkened town checking the effectiveness of hastily prepared blackout drills, and derricks hoisted tanks and trucks onto transports to beef up the defences of Argentine forces dug in on the Falklands. Even as Foreign Minister Costa

Mendez attempted to forge diplomatic solutions, Interior Minister Alfredo Saint Jean was assuring reporters, “We will defend our territory at any cost.”

In Britain, new Foreign Secretary Francis Pym similarly thundered, “Britain does not appease dictators.” And in the mid-Atlantic, in a scene of global brinkmanship unrivalled since

the macho standoff during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Harrier aircraft buzzed the decks of British carriers in mock attacks, and Sea King anti-submarine helicopters chattered overhead. But at home, Britons were becoming as wary of the adventure as the Argentines. Foremost in their minds was the question of what Britain would do if it did regain the Falklands. Faced with the need for protection against a perpetually hostile Argentina, the supply lines would be endless, the costs fierce. It

was that thought that weighed on the minds of British politicians as the bow waves of its battle fleet arched upward and the armada steamed resolutely into what may be the last war of the Empire.

With Jane 0 'Hara and Ian Mather in Buenos Aires, Carol Kennedy in London, William Lowther in Washington and Helen Spooner in Santiago.

0 'Hara and

Carol Kennedy

William Lowther

Helen Spooner

Busenos Aires